An Interview with Yes’ Alan White (August 3, 2015)
Prog Rock’s quintessential super group, Yes, will be heading out on an American tour again this summer/fall, including the third annual Cruise to the Edge in mid-November. The most notable change in the line-up, of course, will be the absence of Chris Squire on bass—the first time ever for a Yes tour.
PROGARCHY’s Kevin McCormick recently spoke for with Yes drummer extraordinaire, Alan White, as he prepared for rehearsals for the upcoming tour.
PROGARCHY Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. I think I speak for all of the members of Progarchy.com in offering our condolences after the recent and sudden death of your colleague and friend, Chris Squire. Obviously he was such an essential part of Yes, founding member and the only person to appear on every Yes album. Are there plans to honor his memory in some way on the upcoming tour?
Alan White Well, we’re going to start rehearsals on Monday and we’re going to put our heads together. We’ve got numerous ideas and we’ve got to work out something to honor Chris. Just how we’re going to do it, we haven’t really decided.
PROGARCHY On your website, you wrote a touching note in his memory. As a musician, I know how unique the musical relationship between the drummer and bassist is and how crucial it is to forming a solid foundation for the band’s sound. Can you put your finger on what made your collaboration with Chris work so beautifully seamlessly?
AW Well yeah, it’s a question of similarity with each other. And over the years it became a more brotherly kind of relationship. Chris was almost part of my family. We shared a lot of experiences together and we played together for 43 years. So when you play together with someone for that long you get to know all of the facets of their playing and visa versa, him with myself. So it made it easy for us to work out some kind of flow in the rhythm section in what Yes was creating. And it was a special relationship. It probably never will be the same. All the same, he did ask that we keep this going, and that I keep it going. He said just do whatever you can do. And that’s a good insight, to just keep things very much forward.
PROGARCHY I imagine it must have been difficult to choose to continue with the planned tour. Was there a deciding factor for you?
AW That was what Chris wanted. He didn’t want everything to come to a halt just because he was ill. And while he was ill he had a very positive outlook to the future. He said, “Well, I’ll go into hospital for four to six weeks, I’ll get rid of this and I’ll be back on tour next spring.”
PROGARCHY Well, the fans will certainly miss him and I know the band will too. Any hints on the set list for the upcoming shows or will that be decided at the rehearsals?
AW Well we’ve put a set list together, but we’ve not rehearsed. We’ve got a few things to try out and see if they’ll work out or not. That will determine how we approach the set list. It’s not confirmed yet, but we have a good idea the type of set we want to do, because we’re touring with Toto who are probably going to do a lot of their [popular tracks]. We’re not going to play whole albums like we’ve done in the past few years. We’re just going to do a great selection of Yes music that people love to hear in concert.
PROGARCHY At first glance, Yes and Toto doesn’t seem like the most obvious double-bill. How did it come about?
AW Well it sounded pretty good to me. Maybe … because we know the guys in the band so well. Steve Porcaro and all the them, I’ve known those guys for years. They’re all super-nice guys and we get along really well.
PROGARCHY Any chances that you might join forces?
AW I doubt it. You know, once you get on the road you have a set list to get into and a time line you keep to. There’s not really time to work that kind of thing out. But I’ve played with Steve Porcaro and Billy Sherwood [on the Pink Floyd tribute album, Back Against the Wall].
PROGARCHY So is it Yes with Toto or…?
AW It’s going to be Yes and Toto. They’ll be opening for us every night, but it’s really more of a kind of double-billing.
PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me how much energy you bring to your live performances. When I saw Yes perform in Austin in 2013, I was impressed with the power in your playing. For you in particular, it must be extremely physically demanding.
AW [laughing] Well it all depends on what part of the tour you go to when we’re on the road! You know, none of us are spring chickens anymore, obviously. And traveling is really what gets you. If we didn’t have to travel on a daily basis we’d be in relatively good shape every evening. But sometimes you’re just really tired when you get to the evening and the last thing you want to do is share music. But it’s really funny how the body turns around and rises to the occasion. I guess when you walk out on stage and see all of the people out there, the body just shrugs all that off and gets to it.
PROGARCHY Has your relationship with Yes’ music changed over time? Are there any songs that you enjoy more now than when they were recorded?
AW Not really. All of Yes’ music is pretty challenging to play. Each song has got its own demands on what to play, and how to play, and the way to play it. So you have to readjust yourself to all of that framework….I have played some of them quite a few thousand times. So it’s about getting back into the mold and making it work.
PROGARCHY Are you surprised at all to still be playing with Yes after so many years?
AW [laughs] Well, I mean, yeah. Eventually, when I joined the band I said, “I’ll give you guys three months and see if I enjoy it and you give me three months and see if you enjoy it as a band.” And I’m still here forty-tree years later, so there must be something working.
PROGARCHY You had commented a while back about the current line-up of Yes is one of the best there’s been and Jon Davison’s working out well. Are you still feeling that?
AW Jon Davison is an excellent vocalist and all-around musician. He’s a super nice guy and very easy work to with.
PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me that Yes is still touring after 40 years. Is there an element to progressive rock that allows it to reach across decades and generations?
AW I guess the main thing is that everybody strives to make Yes a well-respected, high-standard-of-musicianship kind of band. When we perform, everybody gives 110 percent. If one part of the band isn’t clicking on all eight cylinders or whatever, you can tell, because it affects everybody else and their whole performance.
When we’re all firing on all cylinders, there’s no other band like it.
PROGARCHY Indeed! Thank you so much for all of the great music over the years and good luck on the upcoming tour.
N.B. This post should be approached with caution. It is at least PG-13, if not NC17. Not for language, but for personal revelation and content. Additionally, I’ve written about one or two of these things before, especially about Peart as a big brother. Please don’t fear thinking—“hey, I’ve read this before.” But, even the few things I’ve mentioned before are here rewritten. Final note: for an exploration of Peart’s Stoicism, see Erik Heter’s excellent piece on the subject, here at progarchy.com.
As I’ve mentioned before in these pages and elsewhere, few persons, thinkers, or artists have shaped my own view of the world as strongly as has Neil Peart, Canadian drummer, lyricist, writer, and all-around Renaissance man. I’ve never met him, but I’ve read all of his words and listened to all of his songs. I’ve been following this man since the spring of 1981 when two fellow inmates of seventh-grade detention explained to me the “awesomeness” of Rush. My compatriots, Troy and Brad (a different Brad), were right. Thank God I got caught for doing some thing bad that day. Whatever I did, my punishment (detention) led to a whole new world for me, one that would more than once save my life.
Having grown up in a family that cherished music of all types, I was already a fan of mixing classical, jazz, and rock. Rush’s music, as it turned out, did this as well as any band.
While the music captivated me, the lyrics set me free. I say this with no hyperbole. I really have no idea how I would have made it out of high school and through the dysfunctional (my step father is serving a 13-year term in prison, if this gives you an idea how nasty the home was) home life without Peart. I certainly loved my mom and two older brothers, but life, frankly, was hell.
I know that Peart feels very uncomfortable when his fan project themselves on him, or imagine him to be something he is not. At age 13, I knew absolutely nothing about the man as man, only as drummer and lyricist. Thus, even in 1981, I absorbed his lyrics, not directly his personality. Though, I’m sure many of Peart’s words reflect his personality as much as they reflect his intellect.
Rush gave me so much of what I needed in my teen years. At 13, I had completely rejected the notion of a benevolent God. He existed, I was fairly sure, but He was a puppet master of the worst sort, a manipulative, Machiavellian tyrant who found glee in abuse and exploitation. As a kid, I was bright and restless, and I resented all forms of authority, sometimes with violent intent. Still, as we all do, I needed something greater than myself, a thing to cherish and to hold, a thing to believe in.
I immersed myself in science fiction, fantasy, and rock music. Not a tv watcher in the least, I would put the headphones on, turns off the lights in my bedroom, lock the door, and immerse myself in the musical stories of Genesis, the Moody Blues, ELO, ELP, Alan Parsons, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Rush. I could leave the horrors of my house for roughly 44 minutes at a time.
Scratch, scratch, side one. Zip, turn. Scratch, scratch, side two.
Rock music was the sanctuary of my world. But, not just any rock. ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon might be fun when out on a drive, but I needed a work of art that demanded full immersion. I needed prog. I was not only safe in these rhythmic worlds, I was intellectually and spiritually alive, exploring innumerable realms. Pure, unadulterated escape. But, escape into a maze of wonders.
The first time I heard the lyrics (at age 13, the spring of 1981) to “Tom Sawyer,” I knew Rush was MY band. It seemed as though Peart was talking specifically to me, Bradley Joseph Birzer. That’s right. To 13-year old Brad in Hutchinson, Kansas. Peart was 15 years older than I, and he must have gone through the same things I had. Or so I thought. Again, I knew him only through his lyrics. But, did I ever cherish those lyrics. I lingered over each word, contemplated not just the ideas, but the very structures of lyrics as a whole.
Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events
No, his mind is not for rent to any God or Government
Always hopeful, yet discontent [corrected from my original typos]
He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is
Though I’ve never given any aspect of my life to the Government (nor do I have plans to do so), I long ago surrendered much of myself to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and to His Mother. While I’m no modern Tom Sawyer at age 47, I still find the above lyrics rather comforting. And, I do so in a way that is far beyond mere nostalgia.
Armed with Peart’s words and convictions, I could convince myself to walk to Liberty Junior High and, more importantly, to traverse its halls without thinking myself the most objectified piece of meat in the history of the world. Maybe, just maybe, I could transcend, sidestep, or walk directly through what was happening back at home. I could still walk with dignity through the groves of the academy, though my step father had done everything short of killing me back while in our house.
[N.B. This is the PG13 part of the essay] And, given all that was going on with my step father, the thought of killing myself crossed my mind many, many times in junior high and high school. I had become rather obsessed with the notion, and the idea of a righteous suicide, an escape from on purposeless life hanged tenebrous across my soul. After all, if I only existed to be exploited, to be a means to end, what purpose did life have.
What stopped me from ending it all? I’m still not sure, though such desires seemed to fade away rather quickly when I escaped our house on Virginia Court in Kansas and began college in northern Indiana. Not surprisingly, my first real friendship in college—one I cherish and hold to this day—came from a mutual interest in all things Rush. In fact, if anything, my friend (who also writes for this site) was an even bigger Rush fan than myself! I’d never met such a person.
Regardless, from age 13 to 18, I can say with absolute certainty that some good people, some good books, and some good music saved my life, more than once. Neil Peart’s words of integrity and individualism and intellectual curiosity stood at the front and center of that hope.
Perhaps even more importantly to me than Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” quoted above) were Peart’s lyrics for the next Rush album, Signals. On the opening track, a song about resisting conformity, Peart wrote:
Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided
Opinions all provided, the future predecided
Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone
No where is the dreamer or misfit so alone
There are those who sell their dreams for small desires
And lose their race to rats
Even at 14, I knew I would not be one who sold my dreams for small desires. I wanted to be a writer—in whatever field I found myself—and I would do what it took to make it through the horrible home years to see my books on the shelves of a libraries and a bookstores. Resist and renew. Renew and resist. Again, such allowed me to escape the abyss of self annihilation.
Indeed, outside of family members (though, in my imagination, I often think of Peart as one of my older brothers—you know; he was the brilliant one with the goofy but cool friends, the guys who did their own thing regardless of what anyone thought). From any objective standpoint, as I look back over almost five decades of life, I can claim that Peart would rank with St. Augustine, St. Francis, John Adams, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien as those I would like to claim as having saved me and shaped me. If I actually live up to the example of any of these folks, however, is a different question . . .
I also like to say that Peart would have been a great big brother not just because he was his own person, but, most importantly, because he introduced me as well as an entire generation of North Americans (mostly males) to the ideas of Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.
During my junior year of high school, I wrote an essay on the meaning of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, based on Peart’s interpretation. I earned some form of an A. In one of my core humanities courses, while at the University of Notre Dame, I wrote my major sophomore humanities term paper about the cultural criticisms of Neil Peart as found in his lyrics to the 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure. Again, I received an A.
I’m not alone in this love of Rush. The band is, of course, one of the highest selling rock acts of all time, and they are just now crossing the line into their fortieth anniversary. Arguably, no other band has had as loyal a following as had Rush. Thousands and thousands of men (and some women) faithfully attend sold-out concerts throughout North and South America to this day. This is especially true of North American men, ages 35 to 65. Now, as is obvious at concerts, an entirely new generation of Rush fans is emerging, the children of the original set.
Telling, critics have almost always despised Rush, seeing them as having betrayed the blues-based tradition of much of rock, exchanging it for a European (and directly African rather than African-American) tradition of long form, complexity, and bizarrely shifting time signatures. Such a direction and style became unbearable for the nasty writers of the largest music magazines. They have felt and expressed almost nothing but disdain for such an “intellectually-pretentious band,” especially a band that has openly challenged the conformist ideologues of the Left while embracing art and excellence in all of its forms. Elitist rags such as the horrid Rolling Stone and equally horrid NME have time and time again dismissed Rush as nothing but smug middle-class rightists.
That so many have hated them so powerfully has only added to my attraction to the band, especially those who came of age in 1980s, despising the conformist hippies who wanted to mould my generation in their deformed image. Rolling Stone and NME spoke for the oppressive leftist elite, and many of my generation happily made rude gestures toward their offices and their offal. I had no love of the ideologues of the right, either. But, they weren’t controlling the schools in the 1980s. Their leftist idiotic counterparts were in charge. They had no desire for excellence. They demanded conformity and mediocrity.
[The best visual representation of this widespread if ultimately ineffective student revolt in the 1980s can be found in “The Breakfast Club” by John Hughes (RIP).]
To make it even more real for me, the parents of Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, had survived the Polish holocaust camps, and the parents of Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of the band, had escaped from the Yugoslavian gulag. Peart came from a Canadian farming community, his father an entrepreneur. No prima donnas were these men. They understood suffering, yet they chose to rise above it. And, of course, this makes the British music press even more reprehensible for labeling the members of Rush as rightest or fascist. Again, I offer the most dignified description for Rolling Stone and NME possible: “ideological fools and tools.”
Enter Rob Freedman
In his outstanding 2014 book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Algora Press), author, philosopher, and media specialist Rob Freedman has attempted to explain not just Peart’s popularity among his multitude of fans—some of the most dedicated in the music world—but also the Canuck drummer’s actual set of ideas and explored beliefs in his books and lyrics. Not surprisingly, Freedman finds the Canadian a man deeply rooted in the western tradition, specifically in the traditions of western humanism and individualism.
As Freedman notes, one can find three themes in all of Peart’s lyrics: individualism; classical liberalism; and humanism. It’s worth observing that Freedman has formal training in academic philosophy, and this shows in his penetrating discussion of the music as well as the words of Rush.
Relying on interviews with the band, the music journalism (much of it bogus and elitist idiocy) of the last forty years, and actually serious works of Rush criticism, such as that done admirably by Steve Horwitz in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court, 2011), Freedman offers not so much a biography of the band, but rather a map of their intellectual influences and expressions. Freedman possesses a great wit in his writing, and the book—relatively short at 164 pages—flows and flows, time standing still until the reader reaches the end. For all intents and purposes, Freedman’s book serves as an intellectual thriller, a page turner.
As a lover of Rush, I have a few (very few) quibbles with Freedman’s take. Mostly, from my not so humble perspective, Freedman gives way too much space to such charlatans as Barry Miles of the English New Music Express who claimed Rush promoted neo-fascism in the late 1970s. Freedman, while disagreeing with Miles, bends over backwards defending Miles’s point of view, as it did carry immense weight in the 1970s and wounded the band deeply. From my perspective, there is no excuse for Miles. He maliciously manipulated and twisted the words of Peart—using his lyrics and a personal interview—which were as deeply anti-fascistic as one could possibly imagine (paeans to creativity and individualism) and caused unnecessary damage to the reputation of three men, two of whom who had parents who had survived the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues, as noted above. Miles’s take on Rush is simply inexcusable and no amount of justification explains his wickedness and cthluthic insensibilities toward three great artists. Dante best understood where such “men” spent eternity.
I also believe that Freedman underplays the role of Stoicism in his book. The venerable philosophy barely receives a mention. Yet, in almost every way, Peart is a full-blown Stoic. In his own life as well as his own actions, Peart has sought nothing but excellence as conformable to the eternal laws of nature. This is the Stoicism of the pagans, admittedly, and not of the Jews or Christians, but it is Stoicism nonetheless. Freedman rightly notes that Plato and, especially, Aristotle influenced Peart. But, so did Zeno, Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca. This comes across best in Peart’s lyrics for “Natural Science” (early Rush), “Prime Mover” (middle Rush), and in “The Way the Wind Blows” (recent Rush). In each of these songs, Peart presents a view of the world with resignation, recognizing that whatever his flaws, man perseveres. Erik Heter and I have each attempted to explore this aspect of Peart’s writings at progarchy. Heter has been quite successful at it.
As the risk of sounding cocky, I offer what I hope is high praise for Freedman. I wish I’d written this book.
Peart as Real Man
In the late 1990s, Peart experienced immense tragedy. A horrible set of events ended the life of his daughter and, quickly after, his wife. Devastated, Peart got on his motorcycle (he’s an avid cyclist and motorcyclist) and rode throughout the entirety of North America for a year. It was his year in the desert, so to speak.
Then, in 2002, Rush re-emerged and released its rockingly powerful album, Vapor Trails. The men were the same men (kind of), but the band was not the same band. This twenty-first century Rush, for all intents and purposes, is Rush 2.0. This is a much more mature as well as a much more righteously angry and yet also playful Rush. This is a Rush that has nothing to prove except to themselves. The last albums—Vapor Trails (2002); Snakes and Arrows (2007); and Clockwork Angels (2012)—have not only been among the best in the huge Rush catalogue, but they are some of the best albums made in the last sixty years. They soar with confidence, and they promote what Rush has always done best: excellence, art, creativity, distrust of authority, and dignity of the human person.
Peart is not quite the hard-core libertarian of his youth. In his most recent book, Far and Near, he explains,
The great Western writer Edward Abbey’s suggestion was to catch them [illegal immigrants], give them guns and ammunition, and send them back to fix the things that made them leave. But Edward Abbey was a conservative pragmatist, and I am a bleeding-heart libertarian==who also happens to be fond of Latin Americans. The ‘libertarian’ in me thinks people should be able to go where they want to go, and the ‘bleeding heart’ doesn’t want them to suffer needlessly” [Far and Near, 58]
If he has lost any of his former political fervor, he’s lost none of his zest for life and for art. “My first principle of art is ‘Art is the telling of stories.’ What might be called the First Amendment is ‘Art must transcend its subject’.” [Far and Near, 88]
These twenty-first century albums speak to me at age 47 as much as the early albums spoke to me at age 13. I’ve grown up, and so has Rush. Interestingly, this doesn’t make their early albums seem childish, only less wise.
After my wife and I lost our own daughter, Cecilia Rose, I wrote a long letter to Neil Peart, telling him how much the events of his life—no matter how tragic—had shaped my own response to life. I included a copy of my biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Peart sent me back an autographed postcard as thanks.
I framed it, and it will be, until the end of my days, one of my greatest possessions.
After all, Neil Peart has not just told me about the good life, creativity, and integrity, he has shown me through his successes and his tragedies—and thousands and thousands of others—that each life holds a purpose beyond our own limited understandings. As with all things, Peart takes what life has given and explodes it to the level of revelation.
The following interview with guitarist and composer Kevin McCormick was originally posted on Catholic World Report last week, but I am posting here as Kevin is a fellow Progarchist, he is a fabulous musician, and his new album, with his daughter Rachel, is a gorgeous album of traditional and sacred Christmas music. Here goes!
Kevin McCormick (www.kevin-mccormick.com) is a classical guitarist, composer, and teacher based in Texas who has released several albums over the past twenty years. His new album, In Dulci Jubilo: Songs of Christmas for Guitar and Voice, featuring the vocals of his teenage daughter, Rachel, released today, on the Feast of St. Cecilia. It is a collection of fourteen songs for Advent and Christmas, including “In Dulci Jubilo”, “Ave Maria”, and “Panis Angelicus”. He recently responded to some questions I send to him about his new album.
CWR: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, what is your musical background: where did you study, what have you recorded, and what do you do as a full-time musician? What about your daughter, Rachel?
McCormick: My mother was a music teacher and choral director and so music was a large piece of the fabric of our family. My older brother played piano and my younger brother played drums. I’ve played guitar for nearly as far back as I can remember. I started when I was seven and studied privately for many years. And yes, I’m not ashamed to say we were a band. We spent most of our time writing our own music. By high school though we were playing cover tunes at clubs and other gigs and generally enjoying it all. I continued with a band at Notre Dame, but while there I also rediscovered classical guitar and classical music in general. During a year abroad in Rome I studied at a guitar conservatory with a student of Andres Segovia. I realized how much I loved the sound and repertoire of the instrument and so I pursued it on and off for the next decade.
A stint in Japan allowed more of the rock thing and club playing but also the study of Japanese music. Along the way I began to take composition more seriously. When my wife and I returned to the States I studied guitar and composition at Indiana University’s School of Music. Eventually we wound up in central Texas where I was trading time between writing serious post-rock song cycles, writing for my own ensemble in Austin (which once again included my brother on drums), and composing classically. The song cycles became my first two recordings [With The Coming of Evening and Squall]. In fact, they are part of a tryptic that awaits completion. Stylistically they spring from many styles including jazz, east asian, film music. I was heavily influenced by the work of Mark Hollis during that time with my own foundation as a classical player was woven in as well.
But you never know what God has in store. I ended up establishing a teaching studio in our small Texas town and playing classical gigs in the area. That lead to my three solo guitar recordings: Solo Guitar (an introduction to classical guitar), Americas (music of Latin America and some original compositions), and Songs of the Martin (collection of songs performed on a 1846 Martin Guitar). My daughter Rachel definitely inherited a love for music. She has been singing ever since she could make sound. She has cantored at church since she was ten and has sung in stage musicals at our local theater. She has sung with our church choir and her school choir for nearly ten years. She has done some private study, but really she just seems to have been blessed with the voice and the spirit for singing. Some of my fondest memories of her singing have nothing to do with a stage. She sings all the time.
Well, it seems a little early to talk about Christmas. But, not about Christmas music! As we get close to Advent (begins this Sunday) and prepare for Christmas and the holiday season, you have a lot of wonderful offerings from the music community. Indeed, there almost seems to be a revival of the Christmas song. Lots and lots to choose from.
If you want a great two-track EP, get The Reasoning’s “It’s Christmas (Sing it Loud),” out today, and available from amazon.com and iTunes. Rachel Cohen has the voice of an angel, of course, and it shows in every note she sings with one of the greatest prog/rock outfits around today. Thank you, Matt Cohen, master of many, many things. For those of you who shy away from prog, no worries. This is just a wonderfully joyous song. I think it could’ve easily been the finale to HOME ALONE.
Neal Morse, never unwilling to profess his own faith (in Christianity and in prog!) has two CDs out you might like. The first, out last year at this time and still available, is a PROGGY CHRISTMAS–featuring just about everyone you could imagine. As I wrote last year:
All of the members of Transatlantic (Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt), Steve Hackett, Steve Morse, and Randy George. Portnoy is even “The Little Drummer Boy”! Jerry Guidroz does his usual extraordinary mixing and engineering.
Also available–as a member of the Neal Morse Inner Circle–“Christmas 2013.” These songs date back almost 20 years. Very delicate as well as energetic.
Our own progarchist, lovely Leah, “metal maid,” has a gorgeous EP out, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Three tracks introduce the listener to our favorite Canuck rocker (that is, below the age of 60. Sorry Geddy, Alex, and Neil) and the spirit of a metal Christmas.
Finally, out just since last Friday, is another progarchist album, In Dulci Jubilo. This one comes from classical and progressive guitarist Kevin McCormick and his oldest daughter, Rachel. My best description of this album is “immaculate.” In Dulci Jubilo is 14 tracks long at 46 minutes. A much more detailed review forthcoming.
This month at Progarchy, in addition to writing and analyzing about many, many things, we’re having a bit of celebration of Kevin McCormick’s first album, With the Coming of Evening (1993). It’s been 20 years since it first appeared, and, sadly, this masterpiece is still relatively forgotten.
This needs to change.
It’s nearly impossible to label in terms of styles. McCormick, much influenced by every great composer, performer, and group from Andres Segovia and Viktor Villa-Lobos to Rush and Talk Talk, brings everything good to his music.
A nationally award-winning poet, published composer (for classical guitar as well as choir), and professional classical guitarist, he offers his very artful being and soul to his music. Like many in the prog world, McCormick’s a perfectionist in everything he does. But, it’s not completely fair to label this album “in the prog world,” though it comes as close to prog as any genre in the music world.
Had With the Coming of Evening been released now, in the days of internet sovereignty, many would label this album as post-rock or post-prog, akin to the Icelandic shoe-gazing of Sigur Ros. No doubt, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock hover lovingly over this work, though McCormick is always his own man.
Very much so.
Nor, would he have it any other way. As humble as he is talented, McCormick would gladly take blame for any fault, and, being Kevin, he would rarely take credit for anything brilliant he produces. He would say he discovered what is already, simply having been the first to notice it or remember it.
Still it’s his name on the work, and he recognizes that this comes with a certain amount of responsibility and duty–to all who came before him and all who will come after him. McCormick would even want his inspirations to be proud of him. After all, what would Mark Hollis think of just some ghastly American cover band?
No, McCormick is his own man.
I should be upfront about my bias. I’ve known Kevin since the fall of 1986, when we were each freshmen in college. Though we’d talked off an on our first month and a half of the semester, it was on a plane ride from Chicago to Denver over fall break that really allowed us to get to know each other. After that, we were as thick as thieves. Well, as thieving as two would-be Catholic boys could be.
As with all meaningful college friendships, we talked late into the night, read and critiqued each other’s work, had deep (well, at the time, they seemed deep) philosophical debates, talked (of course) about girls, discussed which albums were the best ever, mocked the cafeteria food, and so on.
The following year, we traveled throughout southern Europe and also the UK together. I spent the year in Innsbruck, Austria, and Kevin lived in Rome.
When traveling together for three weeks in England, we paid homage to all of the great recording studios, tried to find Mark Hollis at EMI headquarters, and even (oh so very obnoxiously) thought we’d tracked down Sting’s house. Kevin rang the doorbell, but, thank the Good Lord, neither Mr. Sting nor Mrs. Sting answered.
We also, of course, visited Stonehenge.
If we’d had Facebook, then, we probably would’ve visited Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Matt Stevens (was he in kindergarten, then?), Robin Armstrong, Matt Cohen, and Giancarlo Erra, too. “Who are these crazy Americans knocking on our door! Go visit someone like Mr. and Mrs. Sting!”
Our third year, back at our Catholic college in northern Indiana, we shared a dorm room. That year, I also hosted a Friday night prog show (called, can you believe it, “Nocturnal Omissions”–I really thought I was clever) on our college radio station, and Kevin would often co-host with me. He founded a band, St. Paul and the Martyrs, which became the most popular band on campus, covering everything from XTC to Yes to Blancmange.
Our final year, I helped produce an extremely elaborate charity concert, and St. Paul and the Martyrs performed–the entire Dark Side of the Moon, complete with a avant garde film and elaborate stage lighting, followed by a performance (less elaborate in terms of production) of side one of Spirit of Eden.
When Kevin returned from several years in Japan and (truly) traveling the world, we spent a few years together in graduate school, Kevin in music, me in history.
Kevin is godfather to my oldest son, and I to his second daughter. We remain as close as we ever were.
What about the music?
Come on, Birzer. This is a music site, not a “here’s what I did in college” site. True, true. But, so much of my own thoughts regarding Kevin’s music are related to our friendship. Every time I put on one of his albums, it’s as though I’ve just had one of the best conversations in my life.
So, I’ve asked others at Progarchy to review With the Coming of Evening. You know my bias–so, now I’ll state what I believe as objectively as possible.
Kevin is brilliant, as a lyricist, as a composer, and as a person. His first album, With the Coming of Evening, the first of a trilogy, is a stunning piece of work, and it deserves to be regarded not just as a post-rock classic, but as a rock and prog classic.
It’s not easy listening. Kevin takes so many chances and weaves his music in so many unusual ways, that one has to immerse oneself in it. It’s gorgeous. It’s like reading a T.S. Eliot poem. No one who wants to understand an Eliot poem reads it as a spectator. You either become a part of it, or you misunderstand it.
If there’s a misstep on the album, it comes with the 9th track, “Looks Like Rain.” Its blues structure and blue lamentations stick out a little too much. A remix of this album would almost certainly leave this song out. It’s still an excellent song. It just doesn’t fit tightly with the rest of the album–which really must be taken as an organic and mesmeric whole.
Kevin took six years to write and record the follow-up album, Squall (1999), and he’s ready to record the conclusion to the trilogy.
More on Kevin to come. . . .
But, for now, treat yourself to his backcatalogue. I give it my highest recommendation. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that he one of the nicest guys in all of creation. . . .
Tad Wert: Kevin McCormick’s 1993 album, With the Coming of Evening, is a wonderful work that I missed when it was released. Fortunately, in this digital age nothing is lost, and hopefully this album will reach the wider audience it deserves.
The first track, Uncovered, sets the mood for the entire work, with acoustic guitar and McCormick’s tremulous vocals. At first listen, I was struck by the obvious late-period Talk Talk influence (Spirit of Eden), but there’s a lot more going on here than mere imitation. For example, there’s a lively middle section in Uncovered where a shuffling drum beat, jazzy organ and bass join in as McCormick sings the impressionistic verses, “As the grain is wound and wound, it rings a new scar each year/Branches brace a part of me/And suns and rains, and suns and rains survive, the past completed./Few can graft the limb to soul and wind it all down to the core to cure the last, to cure the last./Waiting to be bound, waiting to be bound, ….” (I’m not sure about the exact words, since I don’t have a lyric sheet, but that’s what I’m hearing). So right off the bat, there is a very nice use of a tree’s growth rings to symbolize life’s tribulations.
Next up is an instrumental tune, Annual Ring (there’s that metaphor again!), that seamlessly links Uncovered to the third track, Summoned. While less than two minutes long, this is one of my favorite songs of the album. An insistent Eno-esque atmosphere swells up while an undercurrent of vibes and Eastern-styled percussion weave in and out. Before you know it, you’re well into Summoned, which is another Spirit of Eden-style song. However, this time around McCormick adds some nicely angular electric guitar that adds tension to the primarily acoustic mix.
Sho Song is another instrumental featuring a nice Japanese feel with flutes and arco bass. Imagine a peaceful Zen garden in the late afternoon, and this would be your soundtrack.
Ransomed is a more straight-ahead rock composition featuring electric guitar mixed up front with simple bass and drums accompaniment. It steadily builds in intensity, as McCormick delivers the evocative words, “Can’t see, but I feel, and I feel./That’s what he said up on a tree, when he ransomed me.” It’s a terrific song, and its abrupt ending lends it impressive power.
Rokudan is another linking instrumental with treated piano and an ominous underpinning of deep bass that slowly resolves into a beautiful motif that is repeated and slowly improvised upon. Think Harold Budd/Brian Eno here.
Without Breathing features an opening riff that is Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You MakeIt” turned inside out. There’s a feeling of barely controlled chaos in this song, as the riff asserts itself over an energetic guitar solo.
Under the Meniscus is another nice instrumental that leads into the straight-ahead blues of Looks Like Rain.
Glimpses begins with some classically-styled acoustic guitar, which is soon joined by double bass and cello. Some tasteful electric guitar joins in as McCormick sings, “You’ve held back so long /Now is the time /In silence the pledge was taken /Relentless static is fulfilled /From the forest that I entered /To the desert where I ended /My feet have calloused /My heels are tuned in, turned on /And I hear you in great frequency.” To my ears, this is the centerpiece of the entire work, as musically it alternates between foreboding and dread to joyful anticipation.
The Setting Sun is a nice little jam that recalls Traffic’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.
The album closes with the beautiful and measured Elegy for the Empty Orchestra. Featuring a gorgeous melody played on acoustic instruments, this is the perfect closer.
With the Coming of Evening proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: a liberal amount of Talk Talk, a dash of Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison, sprinkle in some tasteful Brian Eno atmospherics and Japanese modes, and you have sense of who and what McCormick admires. Add to the mix his excellent classically-tinged acoustic guitar work, his evocative lyrics, and impeccable pacing, and you end up with a very mature and moving work. This is music to employ when you desire space for contemplation. This is music that unfolds to repeated and close listening. Like the best literature, this is music that rewards the listener with new and deeper insights whenever it is revisited.
Twenty years ago, exactly, the best album you’ve never heard appeared, Kevin McCormick’s With the Coming of Evening. Over the next several days, we’ll be celebrating the release of what should be regarded as a post-rock/post-prog classic. “Impressionist prog” might be a good label, if we didn’t despise labels so much.
Our first reviewer, Progarchist Extraordinaire, John Deasey.–ed.
John Deasey: I’d heard the name, Kevin McCormick before, mentioned on various websites, as being akin to Talk Talk circa “Spirit of Eden” so it wasn’t a huge surprise to find subtle percussion, carefully phrased vocals, hushed, calm mixtures of woodwind, jazz, folk and prog.
What was a surprise is to find this album wasn’t a great success when it was released in 1993 and somehow flew under the radar.
Ahead of its time ? Well, if “Spirit of Eden” is anything to go by I’d say yes, this is the case. Maybe the music world wasn’t quite ready for such an esoteric mix of styles, textures and atmosphere.
The Talk Talk influence is well to the fore, but rather than sounding like a Mark Hollis clone, McCormick sounds more like Nine Horse-era David Sylvain. Sonorous, tender, melodic and understated.
This really is an album to play in its entirety, save for a couple of tracks which could quietly be nudged onto someone else’s playlist perhaps. For example ‘Looks Like Rain’ really doesn’t belong here, with its bluesy, roots feel and good safely be culled on any personal re-mastering !
There are two Japanese inspired instrumentals. The first – ‘Sho Song’ – is utterly fantastic for a minute or so, but then becomes tiring and a bit jarring. The second – ‘Rokudan’ – is a wonderful piece worthy of any Craig Armstrong album with a definite cinematic atmosphere. This track also brings to mind the beautiful Sigur Ros EP ‘Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do’ with droplets of sound, texture and light forming a sonically wonderful vibe.
McCormick is a classically trained guitarist and it shows. Tracks such as ‘Uncovered’ and ‘Summoned’ have a lovely understated style where his skill as a guitarist shine through.
What I like about this album is the generally un-structured feel to many of the songs. They meander. They explore. They are given space to develop and nothing feels rushed.
There is a very organic feel, as though the tracks are streams running over a rocky river bed, or paths gently traversing a grassy moorland.
I’ve mentioned in other reviews about my fondness for Scandinavian bands and their ease at creating space and breadth in their music. This same feel is here and the end result is a spiritual, thoughtful, impressive album that grows with each listen.
It’s is also worth mentioning it sounds as though it could have been released yesterday, such is its relevance.
Rush appears to be a band without a retirement plan. This past year saw the release of the highly acclaimed studio album Clockwork Angels, the subsequent world tour promoting the album and the fourth remastered re-release of the 35-year old classic album 2112. With the re-release of that epic work and the renewed attention it has garnered, it is worth noting that the recording and the subsequent live shows were really, as the liner notes say, “The end of the beginning, a milestone to mark the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush.”
Neil Peart hardly could have known how accurate that statement would be. Today the band is approaching its 40th year since its first full-length album. Most artists of their age lucky enough to be still performing spend most of their time coasting on the tails of decades-old hits and playing as shadows of their former glory. Rush seems to continually push itself into new territory creating an ever-changing sound yet with ever constant sensibility. Something about Rush feels contemporary but remains rooted in the sound of three guys from Toronto four decades past.
Rock artists worked more quickly back then. By 1976, a banner year for Rush, the band had produced four studio albums. Having resurrected themselves from the brink of extinction (or at least from being dropped by their label) with the inexplicable popularity of their futuristic totalitarian opera “2112,” the band toured extensively throughout the US and Canada. Their “brief” stretch promoting the new album ran from February to August and included opening for Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith. Somehow the band found time to put together a double-live album of those recent shows and, with but a week in-between, again headed out on the road from August and into the new year promoting that record, All the World’s a Stage. By the time they wrapped up in England in June of 1977, Rush had been touring for nearly two years without a lengthy break and receiving accolades not only for their recorded work but for the power, skill and intensity they brought to the stage.
Kevin McCormick, Squall (1999). To my mind, this is some of the best rock music ever written—but tempered with very serious classical sensibilities and lacking the over-the-top bombast present in even some the best of 1970s progressive rock.
If one had to label his music, it would most likely be a post-prog, post-rock, or, simply put post-Talk Talk. In the current realm of music, one might think of a mixture of Matt Stevens, Gazpacho, and Nosound.
McCormick incorporates his profound poetry as lyrics. Each word—and the way Kevin sings it—seems utterly filled with grace and conviction. This is part two of a rock/post-rock trilogy (he’s currently working on number three). And, it’s hard to listen to Squall without listening to its equally fine predecessor, With the Coming of Evening (1993). Kevin really has it all: a great voice, the ability to write poetry as lyrics, and the training of a classical guitarist.
Before I write any more, let me admit my bias. Kevin is one of my closest friends, and he has been since we first met in the fall of 1986 as freshman at the University of Notre Dame. We still talk and correspond frequently. Kevin is the godfather of my oldest son, and I of his second daughter.
We bonded immediately on matters of music back in 1986.
Kevin and his two brothers had a well-known Texas band in the mid 1980s, and Kevin formed the finest band at Notre Dame, St. Paul and the Martyrs, during our years there. Toward the end of our senior year, St. Paul and the Martyrs opened for the-then unknown progressive jam band, Phish.
During our years in college, Kevin and I traveled throughout the U.S. and England together (making sure to visit Trident studios as well as EMI (hoping to catch a glimpse of Mark Hollis) while journeying through the mother land of prog and New Wave), co-produced a “Dark Side of the Moon” charity show, complete with an angsty-movie backing a full performance of the album by the Marytrs, talked music and lyrics until late into the nights, and even co-hosted a prog rock radio show on Friday nights.
Not surprisingly, one of my greatest memories of Kevin in college was listening to the entirety of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden in 1988. We remained completely silent for a very long time after its completion, stunned by the immensity of its beauty.
Kevin is extremely talented in a number of ways. Not only is he the father of our beautiful daughters, but he has won national poetry as well as classical guitar composition awards. In addition to the two post-prog albums (With the Coming of Evening and Squall) already mentioned, Kevin has also released several albums of solo classical guitar as well as an album of Americana, all recorded on an 1840s Martin.
His music has been praised publicly by many (see, for example, his entry at Allmusic) and privately by such luminaries as Phill Brown and Greg Spawton.
As of this afternoon, Kevin has finished mixing a Christmas CD, recorded with his oldest daughter on vocals, to be released next Christmas season. And, as mentioned above, he is currently working on the completion of his post-rock trilogy.
I know we at Progarchy have offered lots and lots of suggestions for worthwhile purchases over the last three months. But, as we begin this near year, I can state unequivocally that it’s worth supporting Kevin, especially as he prepares to record his new post-prog album. I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but Kevin is a man of absolute integrity. He is, like so many of us who either play prog or simply listen to prog, a perfectionist. He also possesses one of the finest senses of beauty I’ve ever encountered in another. So, while 2013 will probably NOT be the year of Kevin McCormick in the prog world, 2014 almost certainly will be.
Certainly, Kevin’s album should be one of the most anticipated releases of the next two years. It’s worth beginning to anticipate today, January 1, 2013.
A few days ago, Progarchist and classical philosopher Chris Morrissey asked about our first introductions to music.
The youngest of three boys, born in the summer of love (September 6, 1967—only 3 months and five days after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles), and coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up on progressive rock: Yes, Kansas, Genesis, and the Moody Blues. We faithfully shunned the 3-minute pop format and we sought mightily the 20- and 30-minute epics of European (usually liturgically derived) symphonic music with rock instrumentation and bizarre time signatures.
I remember hearing lots of longish, prog songs as early as 1971 or 1972. Though I’ve never played an instrument with any degree of passion, I’m assured by my mom and two older brothers that I was obsessed with music even as a toddler. Somehow, I figured out how to crawl out of my crib and down the stairs to the family stereo. Even as a one-year old, I would wake the entire household up, blaring the Banana Splits or Snoopy and the Red Baron at 3 in the morning.
My first great awakening came, though, from seeing the sleeves of YesSongs. I spent hours trying to figure out how the animals made it from one floating island to the next. And, I’ll never forget the first time I played side one of YesSongs—I was overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of it.
As is now well recognized, the prog lyrics as well as the cover art tended to be fantastic, pretentious, overblown, and theological. There have even been some interesting scholarly articles about progressive rock thriving in the western and midwestern states of America, mostly among middle-class, conservative kids. And, of course, we, with great confidence, derided disco and top-40 music through junior high, high school, and college. Disco and top-40 music, as we understood it, were decadent and vacuous. As far as we were concerned, progressive rock artists (and some New Wavers) were the only real musicians outside of the classical and jazz world.
In many ways, progressive rock helped define my own childhood and teenage years. I will never forget seeing abolitionist John Brown on the cover of a 1974 Kansas album (it sparked all kinds of historical questions re: Kansas, abolitionism, and the American Civil War); hearing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1979; being introduced to Rush’s 1981 “Moving Pictures” in the Liberty Junior High School library in Hutchinson, Kansas; or listening to Yes’s “Fragile” over and over again and trying to figure out the “deep” meaning of the lyrics. In high school, I worked as on overnight D.J. at a local rock station (KWHK), which doesn’t exist anymore. And, while in college at Notre Dame, I had a Friday-night progressive rock show (WSND) my junior and senior years, often playing two hour blocks of Rush or other groups.
As powerful as any of the albums just mentioned, though, was my first listen to Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring in the spring of 1987 and, even more so, my first listen to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden in September 1988.
My comrade in arms in college was the singer of the most popular band on campus, St. Paul and the Martyrs. They even opened for Phish when Phish played on campus, spring 1990. The leader singer, Kevin McCormick, even became my oldest son’s godfather! Now, he’s a well-known classical guitarist and even a Progarchist.
But, I’ll never forget the two of us listening to Spirit of Eden for the first time. We were just stunned and in complete silence as we explored every note and every silence of the album.
Having turned 13 in the autumn of 1980, I also, of course, grew up with New Wave: Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, The Police, The Cure, Oingo Boingo, XTC, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Over the Wall!
Our local Kansas radio station—KWHK—had briefly been formatted for New Wave, so I was able to get every new album sent by the record labels. The one that hit me hardest was XTC’s Skylarking.
My college radio show at Notre Dame focused on progressive rock, as mentioned above, but I threw in a lot of New Wave. New Wave just seemed the more radio-friendly version of progressive rock. And, by the early 1980s, progressive rock seemed to have run its course. Could Asia really claim to be the successor of Yes? Or, could Genesis without Peter Gabriel or Steve Hackett really be Genesis? We answered with a resounding “no.” That left us with New Wave.
After all, in 1990, we still had a few years before Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard re-introduced—in the states—a new wave of Progressive Rock.
A quarter of a century later, I realize that music took on religious significance for me and my friends. Those who embraced disco, pop, or top 40 music were heretics, and we supporters of progressive rock were the orthodox.
A year or so ago, some former students asked me to write about my listening tastes in the 1980s. Here’s what I wrote for them:
High School was a long time ago for me, but I still remember it well. During the summers, I had one of the best jobs in the world–I was a DJ at our local AM-station, KWHK. Not only did I DJ, but I also got to write and produce commercials, and I served as a liaison between the sheriff’s department and the National Weather Service. I grew up in central Kansas, so we had tornados and tornado warnings quite frequently. Great job. I’ve also been into collecting music (mostly progressive and alternative rock, some jazz, and a bit of classical) since second grade. I started young, and, for better or worse, I’ve never stopped. My kids (13 and under) can name bassists, singers, and drummers of the major progressive bands. And, yes, I’m proud of them.
Freshman year of high school, 1982-1983. It was freshman year that I really discovered New Wave. I had been listening, almost exclusively, to progressive rock and what’s now called classic rock during the 1970s and earliest part of the 1980s. The father of a friend of mine owned a record store, and we were introduced to all kinds of music through the store in 9th grade. In particular, I listened to Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age of Wireless (favorite song: One of Our Submarines is Missing). I had this on one side of a tape and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love (favorite song: 4 Ever 2 Gether). Also lots of U2’s War (favorite song: Sunday Bloody Sunday). Progressive Rock was never far from my heart, and I listened to Rush’s Signals (favorite song: Subdivisions) pretty much non-stop, Peter Gabriel’s IV (favorite song: Lay Your Hands on Me), and Roxy Music’s Avalon (favorite song: Take a Chance with Me).
Sophomore year of high school, 1983-1984. This was a huge year for music. Genesis released their self-titled album (favorite song: Home by the Sea, Parts I and II); the Police released Synchronicity (favorite song: Synchronicity II); and Yes released 90125 (favorite song: Cinema).
Junior year, 1984-1985. Rush’s Grace under Pressure (favorite song: Between the Wheels) dominated every other album that year. Frankly, this was THE album. If I had to name a favorite album of high school, this would be it. My sophomore year in college, I wrote a paper using only the lyrics from the album. I even got an A. I also listened a lot to The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow (favorite song: Please, Please, Please), Oingo Boingo’s Dead Man’s Party (favorite song: same as title), and Thomas Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth (Favorite song: same as title).
Senior year, 1985-1986. Another great year for music, but mostly for former proggers going pop. Albums that year included, at the top of the list: Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles (favorite song: Fortress Around Your Heart), Peter Gabriel, So (favorite song: In Yours Eyes), Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair (favorite song: Broken), and XTC, Skylarking (favorite song: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul). The other album I played constantly was the soundtrack to To Live and Die in LA (a pop band, Wang Chung, playing a very proggy style). Lots of Kate Bush, Hounds of Love, too (favorite song: Hello Earth).
It wasn’t until my freshman year (1986-1987) of college that I really got into Talk Talk, the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen. I also really liked Blancmange (kind of a really smart Talking Heads) and New Model Army and a few others. That year, U2 released “The Joshua Tree.” I’ll never forget sitting in the car with a friend, being about 1/2 through the album and just breaking down (not something I did very often) because of the beautiful intensity of the album. Crazy. At the time, I was horrified by RATTLE AND HUM. Now, I think The Joshua Tree as a whole is really good, not brilliant. Side two, maybe, is brilliant. Side one has a brilliant moment–bullet the blue sky. And, RATTLE AND HUM seems better than it did to me then.
In high school, I also remember listening to some A-ha, B-Movie, b-52s, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Communards. I don’t think I would’ve chosen to listen to these groups, but they would’ve been pretty hard to escape then. I would’ve always preferred something prog–unless we were dancing. Had an all night party at my house once my senior year when my mom was out of town. Late, late into the evening, a group of us were trying to analyze a 1977 Genesis concert we’d taped off of PBS! I’ll never forget that night. Lots of analyzing Pink Floyd, too.